BY MARY KATE MURPHY
The Moore County Board of Education is starting to plan for a new round of school construction that addresses crowding at its two largest high schools.
Plans that would have remedied over enrollment at Pinecrest and Union Pines were left out of the last round of school construction bonds in 2018.
The concept of a specialized community college offering technical and college-level courses to students countywide failed to generate significant community support, and county leaders at the time felt it created too great a financing burden along with four new elementary schools.
But enrollment at both high schools has only continued to climb, and the current school board is prioritizing the replacement of mobile classrooms with brick-and-mortar buildings.
Currently, Pinecrest has 2,200 students in buildings designed for 1,600. Meanwhile, enrollment at Union Pines is now up over 1,400 on a campus built for 1,060. Each accommodates the overflow with a 10-classroom mobile unit on campus, along with half a dozen single trailers.
Earlier this year the school board’s construction committee asked SfL+a Architects, longtime consultants on Moore County Schools’ building projects, to revisit plans sketched out in 2015 to renovate and expand both high schools.
Board members learned last month that fulfilling those plans — which would match the schools’ capacity to their current enrollment — would likely cost $245 million, or twice as much as they were expected to back then.
But by the time any significant construction project could be completed, southern and central Moore County are expected to have over 4,000 public high school students. That number is projected to be over 4,400 five years beyond that.
“Even if we had implemented the plan in 2015, we’d be behind today. So you’d still be looking at a major capital project even with that,” Tom Hughes, a principal architect with SfL+a, told the committee this week.
“If we start today with any major capital project, by the time we go through funding, design, construction … we’re out to 2027 so let’s take that as sort of an interim goal,”
In a Thursday meeting, Hughes said that options to accommodate enrollment growth out to 2032 would likely run around $290 million.
The most straightforward of those options involves building a new high school with a similar capacity to Pinecrest and a price tag of around $150 million.
That school would draw significantly from Pinecrest and Union Pines to bring enrollment at those schools within their built capacity. Renovating those two schools would run around $140 million.
For the purposes of planning, the school board has not included North Moore High in the larger equation. That school was expanded in 2020 to include an auxiliary gymnasium and new classroom wing. Board Vice Chair David Hensley, who leads the construction committee, said that the board is unlikely to consider expanding North Moore’s attendance area beyond what was established in the latest round of redistricting.
Variations on building a new high school include building a 1,400 student school. Another 300 students’ worth of classroom space could be added later — either at the new school or at Union Pines.
“It starts to raise the question of balance. How do you see the balance of your enrollment in your schools?” Hughes said, pointing out that most of the options would result in a trio of 3A schools.
Another option involves carrying out the 2015 plans and pulling ninth grade from one or both high schools. That would run around $285 million, Hughes said, including $40 million to build a ninth-grade academy.
Hensley said that the district has options for siting such a school, including the New Century Middle campus adjacent to Union Pines. He said that he’s also discussing with Aberdeen leaders the possibility of using the old elementary campus on U.S. 1 as “swing space” during construction.
But he also outlined the drawbacks of expanding the existing high schools, namely the limitations of their sites and cost of filling in the pond behind Pinecrest, and benefits of adding a fourth high school.
“If you double the size of Pinecrest, you still only have X number of students who can make each sports team,” said Hensley. “Whereas if you split it, you have twice as many sports teams, twice as many theater troupes. There are many more opportunities.”
Cost projections, which range up to $310 million for a new 1,400-student high school, renovating at Pinecrest, and renovating Union Pines with a 300-student expansion, do not include buying additional land.
Hughes said that the projected $150 million for a 1,700-student high school is “probably the most confident number out there.”
“I’ve escalated some of these costs, but I don’t have a crystal ball that goes out that far,” he said.
He also advised the board to work with consultants at N.C. State’s Operations Research and Education Laboratory, which periodically updates Moore County Schools’ enrollment projections based on local census and land use data, to identify an appropriate general location for a potential fourth high school.
Hensley said that he plans to bring the options before the full school board next month and hold individual discussion with the county commissioners. He hopes for a joint meeting with the Board of Commissioners in the coming months once “more concrete courses of action” emerge.
“The earlier we involve them in the course of action, development, the better, because then they don’t feel like it’s take it or leave it,” he said.
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.